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The Episcopal Church says "Welcome!" - but why?

06.08.16 | by Matt Oprendek

The Episcopal Church says "Welcome!" - but why?

    Jesus calls us to offer hospitality to all people. Here's what that means and why we do it.

    Tolerance vs. Welcome: An Introduction

    When you tolerate something (or someone), the words we associate with “tolerance” are as follows:

    Putting up with them (or it); displeasure;  annoyance; disdain; having an agenda (as in, “maybe they’ll change in time”).

    When you WELCOME someone, the words we associate with “welcome” are:

    Joyfulness; acceptance; “come anytime”; openness;  giving approval and love; warmth, care.

    Imagine if you visited someone’s home for dinner, or better, imagine you were were forced to spend the night in a stranger’s home, somewhere out of town because of bad weather. 

    Next, imagine what it would be like, if the home-owner tolerated your presence.  Re-read that list of words above.  How would you feel? 

    Now, imagine that the home-owner truly welcomed you.  Re-read those welcome words listed above.  How does THAT make you feel?  

    I wonder: Have we ever “tolerated” guests instead of “welcoming” them? When someone different from you (someone who is unfamiliar or seems like they don’t belong or “fit in”) when someone like that visits our parish, do you tolerate them or do you welcome them?  

    Why does the Episcopal Church say, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”?

    In the Anglican tradition, we look at three things to hear from God today: scripture, tradition, and reason.

    Scripture

    In Scripture, we see that from our very beginning, we have been called by God to offer “welcome” to the stranger.

    Abraham, the Father of The Israeli People, was a “wondering Arabian” who went down to Egypt and lived as an alien.  As described by theologian Amos Yong, the calling of Abraham was the first time in the history of world religions where “the Divine World sides with the fugitive and the immigrant.”  Up until then, the Divine had always “sided” with the native, the insider, the “safe” family members. 

    After this unusual calling of Abraham, the whole Israeli nation was commanded by God not to tolerate … but to LOVE the stranger/foreigner.  In Duet. 10:19, God commands them, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    Next, Jesus himself was an outsider, dependent on welcome of others: Mary at his birth, and during his ministry years as adult: “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).  Jesus was a repeated guest of Simon Peter, Levi, Martha, Zacchaeus, the Pharisees, and many others.  

    Throughout his ministry, Jesus consistently identified with and sided with people who were “outsiders”: women, children, slaves, the crippled, blind, and lame, the oppressed and the marginalized.  Remember, how the leaders of his day complained, “He eats with sinners!”  (Read: “He associates with the unacceptable outsiders who don’t understand our ways!”)  Remember how Jesus knelt next to the woman caught in adultery and said, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone”?

    Remember too, that the Good Samaritan parable was a story showing his listeners that the GOOD PERSON, the exemplar for us to follow, was a person who was “an outsider.”  Someone unclean.  Someone who “wasn’t like us.”  Jesus pointed to this outsider and said, “Hey!  Be like them, insofar as they are offering kindness, compassion, and hospitality to others.”

    Tradition

    The Episcopal Church, as part of the Anglican Communion, when at its best, can be seen historically standing with the oppressed and/or the outsider.  Many early abolitionists were Anglican clergymen, including Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce.  This tradition of standing with the oppressed continued with the creation of The Church League for Women's Suffrage (CLWS), formed in 1909 by Rev. Claude Hinscliffe, an Anglican priest, and his wife Gertrude.

    During the 1960’s, many Episcopal priests marched for civil rights and integrated their congregations, well ahead of national sentiment.  One well known Episcopalian seminarian from New Hampshire, Jonathan Daniels, was murdered while attempted to save another civil rights worker from an angry man, “protecting” his way of life with his shotgun.

    The Episcopal Church continued the tradition of championing the oppressed by ordaining women in the 1970’s, before many other denominations had done so.

    Reason

    It is this part of our background that helps us apply the principles of the past to today’s circumstances.  Who are the people that would be considered “outsiders” — people who are “not like us” or may seem “strange” to us?

    If Jesus were alive today, to which “sinners” would he offer compassion, care, and welcome?  Who are the “outsiders” and people made to feel like they don’t belong?

    Sadly, in many parts of the universal Christian church, people with different orientation or gender expression find themselves as the targets of hate speech, disdain, suspicion, and violence.  Even in some parts of the Episcopal church, GLBT people are “tolerated” but not “welcomed.”

    The 2003 ordination of openly gay Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire became a lightening rod for some people; about four percent of our national membership left the Episcopal Church in the following years.  There remain some people within our “Anglican umbrella” who are convinced that a literal reading of certain scriptural passages means they must not accept GLBT people into leadership roles.  Nevertheless, our denomination has resolved that God does not condemn such persons as “sinners.”  GLBT persons are not required to remain celibate or attempt to change their orientation in order to be “in good standing.” They, like everyone else, are called to faithful loving relationships.  It is because of this background and the ongoing oppression that our parish raises the rainbow flag to express its welcome to all people, including GLBT persons.

    Is flying a rainbow flag a violation of the separation of church and state?

    First, the rainbow flag is not a statement about a preference for one political party or another.  There are GLBT persons within the Republican Party who contend that a better, smaller government includes the right to be left alone with respect to sexual orientation.  (I personally know several such persons.) There are, of course, GLBT persons active within the Democratic Party as well.  

    Many businesses fly a rainbow flag as a sign of their welcome and embracing of a people who have been historically made to feel unwelcome as an “outsider.”  It is not the same thing as endorsing the GOP or the Democratic Party as an institution.

    Second, the “separation of church and state” is a phrase used to summarize the constitutional principle that our government does not and cannot endorse any particular religion or faith.  It is not a phrase relevant or applicable to churches; it is a restriction on our government.

    Nevertheless, as a church, we maintain our tax-exempt status by not engaging in overt, expressly “political” activity, such as endorsing a particular candidate or a particular party.  A rainbow flag does not signify a particular political party; rather, it is a flag that communicates welcome.  A welcome of all people, and not only GLBT people.  Our tax-exempt status is not threatened in any way by our rainbow flag.

    Churches are allowed to and SUPPOSED to instruct members about our faith, including how that faith informs and shapes the decisions that we make within the privacy of the secular voting booth.  Given our scriptures, our tradition, and our reason, we are supposed to communicate and provide hospitality to people who are “outsiders,” especially people who are oppressed by other parts of the Church.

    Can you summarize all this for me?

    At the end of the day, Jesus’ call to offer hospitality is not about politics; it is about people.  People of God offer hospitality to outsiders today — just as they did historically, and just as scripture commands.  People of God want others to know and experience God’s love.  People of God want to say to the oppressed, “You aren’t tolerated here.  You are WELCOME here.”

    When you come to the Episcopal Church, you should feel welcome.  That is, you should feel: “a sense of joyfulness; an acceptance; an openness; a giving approval and love; warmth and care.”  Remember, it is not our job to “fix” people — that’s work for the Holy Spirit. We’re called to love people.  Period.

    In sum, God’s love isn’t limited by gender, disability, race or orientation.  It is unconditional, un-deserved, and most of all, it is unlimited.  That’s why we say with our signs, words, flags, and with our actions, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”

    Yours, 

    Fr. Matt +